Perfect Pitch: Dogs In Music

Perfect Pitch: Dogs In Music
Do dogs and humans share the same musical values?


The Carnegie Hall audience cheered and applauded. The chorus bowed. The soloists barked loudly. It was 1980, and this had been the debut performance of Howl, a musical work for twenty humans and three canines. The piece was composed and conducted by Kirk Nurock, a pianist and arranger who has worked with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Judy Collins, Bette Midler and Leonard Bernstein. Trained at the Juilliard School of Music, Nurock would go on to compose and perform Sonata for Piano and Dog (1983) and Expedition (1984), an arrangement for jazz trio and Siberian Husky. In each of these pieces, dogs howled to accompany music, with occasional barks and yips as punctuation.

Many people think of a dog's howl as a canine attempt to make music, because dogs sometimes howl when music is played or sung. Compared to wild canines, domestic dogs bark a lot more and howl only occasionally. Howling is a form of communication that can indicate loneliness in an isolated dog, but typically serves other social functions. Wolves howl to assemble the pack and also to reinforce the identity of the group. Upon hearing one animal howling, other pack members gather together and join in. The most familiar howl starts without any fanfare and produces a continuous prolonged sound. It may begin with a slightly higher pitch before moving to the main tone, and sometimes the pitch may lower toward the end of the howl. It has a sonorous, mournful sound to the human ear. However canines participating in group howling seem to like it, which is probably why humans imagine that a group of howling dogs or wolves feel that they are engaging in the canine equivalent of a spontaneous jam session.

Scientific analyses suggest that canines have a sense of pitch. Recordings of wolves have shown that each will change its tone when others join the chorus. No wolf seems to want to end up on the same note as any other in the choir. This is why a dog howling along with a group of singing humans is instantaneously noticeable. He is deliberately not in the same register as the other voices, and seems to revel in the discordant sound he creates.

The kind of human music that most often induces dogs to howl is produced on wind instruments, particularly reed instruments such as clarinets or saxophones. Sometimes dogs can be induced to howl by a long note on the violin or even by a human holding a long note while singing. Perhaps these sound like proper howls to the dog and he feels the need to answer and join the chorus.

Probably the most famous human-dog duet ever recorded involved the President of the United States in 1967. President Lyndon Baines Johnson had developed a strong bond with a white mixed-breed terrier bearing the unassuming name "Yuki." Once, while cameras rolled, Johnson sat in the oval office of the White House, with Yuki on his lap, and gave an impromptu performance. The president first sang a Western folk song and then a bit of an operatic aria, both hideously off key, while Yuki accompanied him with gleeful and vigorous howls. The press reports describing this duet were rather demeaning, and music critics suggested that having the dog howl part of an opera was equivalent to having the president make disparaging comments about classical music. Johnson, however, enjoyed "singing" with the dog and was not the least disturbed by the furor it caused. He even proudly displayed one article that described their performance, noting, "Not all the comments are bad. This one says that I sing almost as good as the dog."

Johnson was not the only president to enjoy canine music. In 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt invited the Golden Gloves boxing champion Arthur "Stubby" Stubbs and his Bull Terrier, Bud, to the White House. He later reported that while Stubby played the banjo, Bud sang a medley of Stephen Foster songs. Unfortunately we do not have any recordings of this performance, but Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor, did comment on the performance, saying, "I don't know if it was music, but it was interesting."

Consistent with Mrs. Roosevelt's comment, many experts feel that dogs don't actually vocalize to make music in the same way that humans might sing or play an instrument as part of an aesthetic experience. However there are reports of dogs with definite tastes in music and perhaps some sense of what constitutes good music. Dr. George Robinson Sinclair, the organist at Hereford Cathedral in London, owned a Bulldog named Dan. Sinclair was a friend of Sir Edward William Elgar, best known for writing Pomp and Circumstance and Land of Hope and Glory, and Elgar became fond of Dan because he felt that the dog had a good sense of musical quality. Dan would frequently attend choir practices with his master, growling at choristers who sang out of tune, greatly endearing him to the composer.

Eventually Elgar ended up writing a musical tribute to the dog. Dan, like many Bulldogs, disliked being immersed in water. One day, on a walk along the banks of the River Wye, Dan fell in. As quickly as he could he scrambled out and vigorously shook himself, soaking both Sinclair and Elgar. Greatly amused by this incident, Sinclair challenged Elgar to put this to music. Elgar took up the challenge and immediately began his musical interpretation. It later became one of the Enigma Variations (No. 11), musically immortalizing a dog who knew when people were singing out of tune.

Richard Wilhelm Wagner, composer of the series of four operas that make up The Ring Cycle, had a strong appreciation for the musical tastes of dogs. He provided a special stool in his study for Peps, his Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. As Wagner composed, he would play the piano or sing passages that he was working on. The composer kept his eyes on the dog and modified musical phrases based upon how the dog reacted. Wagner noticed that Peps responded differently to melodies depending upon their musical keys. Passages in one key might cause an occasional calm tail wag, while passages in other keys might arouse an excited response. This put the germ of an idea in Wagner's mind that ultimately led him to a device called the "musical motif." The motif involves the association of specific musical keys with particular moods or emotions in the operatic drama. Thus in the opera Tannhauser, the key of E-flat major was linked with the concept of holy love and salvation, while E major is tied to the notion of sensual love and debauchery. In all of his subsequent operas Wagner came to use musical motifs to identify important characters and other aspects of the drama. When Peps died, Wagner was devastated. He found it difficult to apply his mind to composing until he obtained another dog. This new dog, Fips, of the same breed, soon took his place on a specially upholstered stool placed next to Wagner's piano so that he could render his canine musical expertise and criticism as needed.

Research confirms that dogs have musical preferences and react differently to different types of music. Psychologist Deborah Wells at Queen's University Belfast exposed dogs in an animal shelter to different types of music. The dogs' responses were observed as they listened to either a compilation of popular music (including Britney Spears, Robbie Williams and Bob Marley), classical music (including Grieg's Morning, Vivaldi's Four Seasons and Beethoven's Ode to Joy), or recordings by heavy-metal rock bands such as Metallica. In order to see if it were really the musical aspects of the sounds that the dogs were responding to, they were also exposed to recordings of human conversation and periods of quiet.

The dogs responded differently to different types of music. When the dogs were played heavy metal music, they became quite agitated and began barking. Popular music or human conversation did not produce behaviours noticeably different from having no sound at all. Classical music, on the other hand, seemed to have a calming effect on the dogs. While listening to it, their level of barking was significantly reduced, and they often lay down and settled in place. In her paper published in the scientific journal Animal Welfare, Wells summarized her findings by saying, "It is well established that music can influence our moods. Classical music, for example, can help to reduce levels of stress, whilst grunge music can promote hostility, sadness, tension and fatigue. It is now believed that dogs may be as discerning as humans when it comes to musical preference."

Conversely, humans can have emotional responses to the "musical" sounds created by dogs. In Budapest, Hungary, in 1929, Ludwig Finian was training his dog to "sing" in the hopes that he could use him in a theatrical act. Count Francis Esterhazy was so offended by the sound that he shot the dog dead. When the courts demanded a stiff fine for murdering the canine musician, his response was, "It is a quiet dog that is truly music to my ears."

Stanley Coren is Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia and author of several books on dogs, including How to Speak Dog and Pawprints of History. His website is

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